01-104: THE MEDICINE BUNDLE

By Dorthea Calverley

 

All Indian men had a "medicine bag", much as a white woman has a purse. Like the purse, the medicine bag -- which might be three or four feet long -- contained objects and substances which had a meaning for the owner. Mementos of events which occurred during his vision quest as a young lad would certainly be there. As years went by "souvenirs" were added. Suppose the young man found a swan’s feather (the swan being the bird that symbolized Yogasete, the creator) it could acquire an air of magic and go into the bag. Roots like calamus would be kept there. A braid of sweetgrass, where it grew, or in the north a piece of a bracket fungus which gave off a sweetish smell when placed on red coals provided incense when the man wanted to pray in a special way. A stone, a root, or other object with a marked or fancied resemblance to an animal became a fetish--supposedly endowed with magical powers.

The shaman’s "bundle" on the other hand generally held many more articles--as many as fifty. Often it was contained in the skin of an animal, sometimes that of an unborn buffalo calf.

The shaman’s medicine bag might contain almost anything! A typical bundle might contain an elaborate headdress made from the skull or head-skin of a "sacred" animal or from fur or swan’s down. There might be a headband and certainly a rattle made from the skulls or bones of any small animal. A well-stocked bundle would also contain braids of scented grass, a long pipe, tobacco and a tamper for loading the bowl. The pipe might be three feet long, the stem decorated with the fur of small animals. There might be beads and bits of cloth or any stone with a hole in it, or a stone shaped even remotely like a buffalo or a beaver and various herbal medicines wrapped up in little bundles. There might even be a drum in a bundle. Anything to which the shaman could attach any magical meaning could go in. It was an elaborate collection of "charms" and an essential part of his working equipment.

In many ways the sacred bundle was a nuisance to the shaman and his family. It must be hung on a tripod in the sun in fine weather and be carried in when a storm threatened. Nobody might pass behind it and women seldom if ever touched it. Every time it was moved the right prayers must be said or it would lose its magic. Whenever it was opened a special prayer must be said for every article in it.

If a man wished to rid himself of the responsibility of caring for it he must find somebody else able and willing to pay a great price for it. Besides, the new owner must learn all of the prayers and songs by heart, without a single mistake or all the magic was "washed out, like so much blood from a wound." In other words, the shaman chose his successor, choosing some young man who had had a vision, and who was intelligent enough to master all of the ritual of chants, incantations, songs, dances and motions that accompanied the article’s use. Nevertheless, it was such a great honor to the man’s family that we might compare it to a modern boy’s preparation to go into the priesthood.

In recent years some of the tribes of Alberta found no young men who would undertake the care of the hereditary bundles. The Provincial Museum acquired some of them, on the promise that they would take care of them in the old way. A great ceremony of exchange of ownership took place with tape recordings of all of the vocal ceremonies. Some of the anthropologists learned the ancient rituals and tried to carry out the trust. Just recently, with the growing self-awareness of their culture, some of the Indians have reportedly asked for the bundles to be given back. Presumably, some of the young men are willing to qualify before the old shamans all die. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Meanwhile, modern mothers can be glad that collections of "treasures" rarely get beyond the size of a boy’s pockets!

 

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